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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lance Olsen on Bakhtin, intertextuality, and writing unreadable books

From Lance's website: Lance Olsen was born in 1956 and received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin (1978, honors), his M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop (1980), and his M.A. (1982) and Ph.D. (1985) from the University of Virginia. He is author of nine novels, one hypertext, four critical studies, four short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and a textbook about fiction writing, as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. His short stories, essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Fiction International, Iowa Review, Village Voice, Time Out, BOMB, Gulf Coast, McSweeney's, and Best American Non-Required Reading. Olsen is an N.E.A. fellowship and Pushcart prize recipient, and former governor-appointed Idaho Writer-in-Residence. His novel Tonguing the Zeitgeist was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. His work has been translated into Italian, Polish, Turkish, and Finnish. He has taught at the University of Idaho, the University of Kentucky, the University of Iowa, the University of Virginia, on summer- and semester-abroad programs in Oxford and London, on a Fulbright in Finland, at various writing conferences, and elsewhere. Olsen teaches fiction writing, innovative fiction, and theory at the University of Utah. He serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two; founded in 1974, FC2 is one of America's best-known ongoing literary experiments and progressive art communities. He is also Associate Editor at American Book Review, Fiction Editor at Western Humanities Review, and co-founder of Now What, a collective blog by alternative prose writers and publishers. With his wife, assemblage-artist Andi Olsen, he divides his time between the mountains of central Idaho and Salt Lake City.

[Only for those who are (understandably) not on top of contemporary literary theory: Mikhail Bakhtin was an important, 20th century literary critic who, among other concepts, developed a notion of 'heteroglossia,' a word he used to describe the many voices that inhabit any novel, even seemingly coherent and simple ones. He focused much of his work on Dostoevsky.

'Intertexuality' refers to the way all so-called 'texts' have within them evidence of a larger network consisting of the work of other writers. A simple way of thinking about this is to note that reading must precede writing.

Roland Barthes was a French literary and cultural theorist.]

This interview picks up on some points addressed in the on-line interviews with Lance found on his site

1. Mikhail Bakhtin is often mentioned when discussing multi-vocality in experimental novels. Yet he focused on 19th-century works by authors such as Dostoevsky, and the case could be made that, while there are a multiplicity of voices in Dostoevsky, he was trying to make the book cohere around a specific one. Many of the writers who mention Bakhtin as a theoretical "source," if I could use that word, intentionally create multi-vocal works.

The reading of Bakhtin you're talking about is a prevalent one, and, ultimately, I'm thinking, possibly a kind of misreading, as well.  In his essays collected in The Dialogic Imagination, he talks about how authors of 'dialogic' works (as opposed to what he calls 'monologic' ones) are continuously in conversation, in dialogue, with other works and other authors.  The result is what he calls a 'heteroglossia,' or multivoiced project.  In a sense, that's the case with Dostoevsky's novels, as Bakhtin maintains--after all, Dostoevsky celebrates a multiplicity of perspectives, social registers, and varieties of speech in the same writing space.  And, in a sense, as Bakhtin also maintains, this is what helps define the novel as a genre: it tends to be a loose baggy thing composed of many other things.  

I wonder, of course, why that impulse doesn't also help define the long poem ('The Waste Land' is nothing if not heteroglossic, right?), say, or the play (what work by Shakespeare doesn't do that?), or, arguably, the epic (is The Odyssey REALLY monologic?), let alone the Old Testament.  And, as you point out, from our position in the twenty-first century, the nineteenth-century novel, even in Dostoevsky's hands, feels much less polyvocal than, say, Joyce's Ulysses, or Danielewski's House of Leaves.  In other words, there are polyvocal texts, and then there are polyvocal texts.  

Bakhtin certainly didn't have Wallace's Infinite Jest in mind when conjuring his definitions, and yet it's precisely postmodern authors and theorists who continuously cite Bakhtin as influence.  Odd, isn't it?  Bakhtin was talking about apples, yet we heard nothing but pears in what he was saying.

2. I realize that you wrote 10:01 after Nietzsche's Kisses, but it is interesting that, from the order in which your published works appeared, both it and Anxious Pleasures, which uses The Metamporphosis by Kafka and, less obviously, As I Lay Dying, by Faulkner, as foundational works, are self-consciously multi-vocal and multi-textual. There is a big difference between being unintentionally intertextual — all writers must work this way to a great degree, experimental or not — and being intentionally so. What does self-conscious intertextuality do for a writer, a novel, and a reader?

Here I think we're really citing, not Bakhtin, but Barthes as influence, and his realization that every text is "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash"; that every text "is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture."  (Naturally, Barthes is appropriating Bakhtin.  I wonder who Bakhtin was appropriating.)  One can't put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, without engaging in a conversation across time and space called literary history. Awareness of and engagement with that conversation, I find, is a wonderfully enriching creative/intellectual enterprise.  For me, such self-consciousness has led (fruitfully, I hope) into what Raymond Federman once called "critifiction," and what I take to mean an in-between zone of writing practices that acknowledges that every fiction is a kind of criticism, every piece of criticism a kind of fiction.  And every act of reading is always an act of interpretation —which is to say another mode of critifiction.  

With novels like Nietzsche's Kisses, then, I've simply tried to make visible and complicate what our writing and reading conventions have worked very hard to make invisible and simple.  One can think of Anxious Pleasures as a critical investigation of Kafka's Metamorphosis in particular, and Kafka's fiction in general.  And one can think of it, too, as an extended meditation on how and why we read and write.

3. I am obviously a big fan of your work, but I am curious about the way you see the category of "experimental" or "innovative" in relation to your own books. In a book such as Hideous Beauties you, for the most part, write highly elliptical, atmospheric "vignettes" (for lack of a better word.) But most of your novels are unconventional in terms of the extremity of the actions and themes, the speculative power, and so forth; while they are often conventional in the way they use plot, setting, point of view, style, and character. For instance, in Freaknest the setting is extreme; you speculate on a possible, new-future dystopia, telling a linear story about abused kids. What is perhaps most memorable about that book, however, is the setting, as with most dystopias — and here I am thinking of Brave New World in particular.

What your implied question points to is how extraordinarily difficult it is to speak of "the innovative," "the experimental," or whatever troubled and troubling term we wish to use to refer to . . . what, exactly?  One person's radical experimentation is another's example of the bland leading the bland.  Even more interesting, one person's radical experimentation is the same person's example of the bland leading the bland at a different point in that person's life.

So my first novel, Live From Earth, by way of illustration, strikes me as terribly conventional these days, and, for me, it's been along slow drift from what I was doing in the eighties to what I'm doing now.  I agree with you about Tonguing the Zeitgeist, Time Famine and Freaknest; it's their transgressive themes, overstated characters, hallucinogenic satire, and often textured style that formed their experimental mode.  From, roughly, 2000 on — from, say Girl Imagined By Chance and Hideous Beauties — it strikes me that the dominant innovative impulse in my writing has had more to do with ontological/epistemological questions, formal and linguistic investigation, and an increasing exploration into intertextual and critifictional discourses.  

Currently I'm working on a novel with three intersecting narratives — Van Gogh's last months in Auvers, France; his brother Theo's great grandson's (a filmmaker also named Theo's) murder; and Mohammed Bouyeri, the man who killed him for helping create an experimental short about the abuse of women in Islamic culture.  I'm interested thematically with an investigation into the limits of tolerance in a culture, and otherwise with how the page itself can become a musical arena.  With respect to the latter, I'm writing very short (usually sentence-fragment length) prose bursts, with each character's voice adopting a different font, while using excessive white space as a kind of breathing regulator.  

I feel confident that, if all goes well, this book will be completely unreadable and unpublishable when done.  

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